Brad, Ben (Beckworth?) and Bob

I have been a bit too busy to blog recently and at the moment I am enjoying a short Easter vacation with the family in the Christensen vacation home in Skåne (Southern Sweden), but just to remind you that I am still around I have a bit of stuff for you. Or rather there is quite a bit that I wanted to blog about, but which you will just get the links and some very short comments.

First, Brad DeLong is far to hard on us monetarists when he tells his story about “The Monetarist Mistake”. Brad story is essentially that the monetarists are wrong about the causes of the Great Depression and he is uses Barry Eichengreen (and his new book Hall of Mirrors to justify this view. I must admit I find Brad’s critique a bit odd. First of all because Eichengreen’s fantastic book “Golden Fetters” exactly shows how there clearly demonstrates the monetary causes of the Great Depression. Unfortunately Barry does not draw the same conclusion regarding the Great Recession in Hall of Mirrors (I have not finished reading it all yet – so it is not time for a review yet) even though I believe that (Market) Monetarists like Scott Sumner and Bob Hetzel forcefully have made the argument that the Great Recession – like the Great Depression – was caused by monetary policy failure. (David Glasner has a great blog on DeLong’s blog post – even though I still am puzzled why David remains so critical about Milton Friedman)

Second, Ben Bernanke is blogging! That is very good news for those of us interested in monetary matters. Bernanke was/is a great monetary scholar and even though I often have been critical about the Federal Reserve’s conduct of monetary policy under his leadership I certainly look forward to following his blogging.

The first blog posts are great. In the first post Bernanke is discussing why interest rates are so low as they presently are in the Western world. Bernanke is essentially echoing Milton Friedman and the (Market) Monetarist message – interest rates are low because the economy is weak and the Fed can essentially not control interest rates over the longer run. This is Bernanke:

If you asked the person in the street, “Why are interest rates so low?”, he or she would likely answer that the Fed is keeping them low. That’s true only in a very narrow sense. The Fed does, of course, set the benchmark nominal short-term interest rate. The Fed’s policies are also the primary determinant of inflation and inflation expectations over the longer term, and inflation trends affect interest rates, as the figure above shows. But what matters most for the economy is the real, or inflation-adjusted, interest rate (the market, or nominal, interest rate minus the inflation rate). The real interest rate is most relevant for capital investment decisions, for example. The Fed’s ability to affect real rates of return, especially longer-term real rates, is transitory and limited. Except in the short run, real interest rates are determined by a wide range of economic factors, including prospects for economic growth—not by the Fed.

To understand why this is so, it helps to introduce the concept of the equilibrium real interest rate (sometimes called the Wicksellian interest rate, after the late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Swedish economist Knut Wicksell). The equilibrium interest rate is the real interest rate consistent with full employment of labor and capital resources, perhaps after some period of adjustment. Many factors affect the equilibrium rate, which can and does change over time. In a rapidly growing, dynamic economy, we would expect the equilibrium interest rate to be high, all else equal, reflecting the high prospective return on capital investments. In a slowly growing or recessionary economy, the equilibrium real rate is likely to be low, since investment opportunities are limited and relatively unprofitable. Government spending and taxation policies also affect the equilibrium real rate: Large deficits will tend to increase the equilibrium real rate (again, all else equal), because government borrowing diverts savings away from private investment.

If the Fed wants to see full employment of capital and labor resources (which, of course, it does), then its task amounts to using its influence over market interest rates to push those rates toward levels consistent with the equilibrium rate, or—more realistically—its best estimate of the equilibrium rate, which is not directly observable. If the Fed were to try to keep market rates persistently too high, relative to the equilibrium rate, the economy would slow (perhaps falling into recession), because capital investments (and other long-lived purchases, like consumer durables) are unattractive when the cost of borrowing set by the Fed exceeds the potential return on those investments. Similarly, if the Fed were to push market rates too low, below the levels consistent with the equilibrium rate, the economy would eventually overheat, leading to inflation—also an unsustainable and undesirable situation. The bottom line is that the state of the economy, not the Fed, ultimately determines the real rate of return attainable by savers and investors. The Fed influences market rates but not in an unconstrained way; if it seeks a healthy economy, then it must try to push market rates toward levels consistent with the underlying equilibrium rate.

It will be hard to find any self-described Market Monetarist that would disagree with Bernanke’s comments. In fact as Benjamin Cole rightly notes Bernanke comes close to sounding exactly as David Beckworth. Just take a look at these blog posts by David (here, here and here).

So maybe Bernanke in future blog posts will come out even more directly advocating views that are similar to Market Monetarism and in this regard it would of course be extremely interesting to hear his views on Nominal GDP targeting.

Third and finally Richmond Fed’s Bob Hetzel has a very interesting new “Economic Brief”: Nominal GDP: Target or Benchmark? Here is the abstract:

Some observers have argued that the Federal Reserve would best fulfi ll its mandate by adopting a target for nominal gross domestic product (GDP). Insights from the monetarist tradition suggest that nominal GDP targeting could be destabilizing. However, adopting benchmarks for both nominal and real GDP could offer useful information about when monetary policy is too tight or too loose.

It might disappoint some that Bob fails to come out and explicitly advocate NGDP level targeting. However, I am not disappointed at all as I was well-aware of Bob’s reservations. However, the important point here is that Bob makes it clear that NGDP could be a useful “benchmark”. This is Bob:

At the same time, articulation of a benchmark path for the level of nominal GDP would be a useful start in formulating and communicating policy as a rule. An explicit rule would in turn highlight the importance of shaping the expectations of markets about the way in which the central bank will behave in the future. A benchmark path for the level of nominal GDP would encourage the FOMC to articulate a strategy (rule) that it believes will keep its forecasts of nominal GDP aligned with its benchmark path. In recessions, nominal GDP growth declines significantly. During periods of inflation, it increases significantly.

The FOMC would then need to address the source of these deviations. Did they arise as a consequence of powerful external shocks? Alternatively, did they arise as a consequence either of a poor strategy (rule) or from a departure from an optimal rule?

That I believe is the closest Bob ever on paper has been to give his full endorsement of NGDP “targeting” – Now we just need Bernanke (and Yellen!) to tell us that he agrees.


UPDATE: This blog post should really have had the headline “Brad, Ben, Bob AND George”…as George Selgin has a new blog post on the new(ish) blog Alt-M and that is ‘Definitely Not “Ben Bernanke’s Blog”’

Conventional Thinking at the Brink (by Clark Johnson)

From the day I started my blog I have always been happy to invite other economists to contribute to my blog with guest posts.

Today I can present something even better than a guest post. Today I can present a new paper by Clark Johnson – “Conventional Thinking at the Brink: Comments on Ben Bernanke’s The Federal Reserve and the Financial Crisis (2013)”. Clark in his great paper comments on Ben Bernanke’s book “The Federal Reserve and the Financial Crisis”. 

While I obviously do not agree with all of Clark’s points the paper is as usual very informative and insightful. Clark remains an extremely knowledgeable scholar with a deep insight into particularly monetary history.

Enjoy! You can read Clark’s paper here.

Lars Christensen

PS I have earlier published Clark Johnson’s paper “Keynes: Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness?”


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ECB: “We’re not sure we can get out of it”

When Milton Friedman turned 90 years back in 2002 Ben Bernanke famously apologized for the Federal Reserve’s role in the Great Depression:

Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.

On Twiiter Ravi Varghese has paraphrased Bernanke to describe the role of the ECB in the present crisis:

“You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But we’re not sure we can get out of it.”

Brilliant…follow Ravi on Twiiter here (and follow me here).

Tick tock…here comes the Zero Lower Bound again

This week have brought even more confirmation that we are still basically in a deflationary world – particularly in Europe. Hence, inflation numbers for October in a number of European countries published this week confirm that that inflation is declining markedly and that we now very close to outright deflation in a number of countries. Just take the case of the Czech Republic where the so-called monetary policy relevant inflation dropped to 0.1% y/y in October or even worse Sweden where we now have outright deflation – Swedish consumer prices dropped by 0.1% in October compared to a year ago.

And the picture is the same everywhere – even a country like Hungary where inflation notoriously has been above the central bank’s 3% inflation target inflation is now inching dangerously close to zero.

Some might say that there is no reason to worry because the recent drop in inflation is largely driven by supply side factors. I would agree that we shouldn’t really worry about deflation or disinflation if it is driven by a positive supply shocks and central banks would not react to such shocks if they where targeting nominal GDP rather than headline consumer price inflation. In fact I think that we are presently seeing a rather large positive supply shock to the global economy and in that sense the recent drop in inflation is mostly positive. However, the fact is that the underlying trend in European prices is hugely deflationary even if we strip out supply side factors.

Just the fact that euro zone money supply growth have averaged 0-3% in the past five years tells us that there is a fundamental deflationary problem in the euro zone – and in other European countries. The fact is that inflation has been kept up by negative supply shocks in the past five years and in many countries higher indirect taxes have certainly also helped kept consumer price inflation higher than otherwise would have been the case.

So yes supply side factors help drag inflation down across Europe at the moment – however, some of this is due to the effect of earlier negative supply side shocks are “dropping out” of the numbers and because European governments are taking a break from the austerity measures and as a result is no longer increasing indirect taxes to the same extent as in earlier years in the crisis. Hence, what we are no seeing is to a large extent the real inflation picture in Europe and the fact is that Europe to a very large extent is caught in a quasi-deflatonary trap not unlike what we had in Japan for 15 years.

Here comes the Zero Lower Bound

Over the past five years it is not only the ECB that stubbornly has argued that monetary policy was easy, while it in fact was über tight. Other European central banks have failed in a similar manner. I could mention the Polish, the Czech central banks and the Swedish Riksbank. They have all to kept monetary policy too tight – and the result is that in all three countries inflation is now well-below the central bank’s inflation targets. Sweden already is in deflation and deflation might very soon also be the name of the game in the Czech Republic and Poland. It is monetary policy failure my friends!

In the case of Poland and Sweden the central banks have had plenty of room to cut interest rates, but both the Polish central bank and the Swedish Riksbank have been preoccupied with other issues. The Riksbank has been busy talking about macro prudential indicators and the risk of a property market bubble, while the economy has slowed and we now have deflation. In fact the Riksbank has consistently missed its 2% inflation target on the downside for years.

In Poland the central bank for mysteries reasons hiked interest rates in early 2012 and have ever since refused to acknowledged that the Polish economy has been slowing fairly dramatically and that inflation is likely to remain well-below its official 2.5% inflation target. In fact yesterday the Polish central bank published new forecasts for real GDP growth and inflation and the central bank forecasts inflation to stay well-below 2.5% in the next three years and real GDP is forecasted to growth much below potential growth.

If a central bank fails to hit its inflation target blame the central bank and if a central bank forecasts three years of failure to hit the target something is badly wrong. Polish monetary policy remains overly tight according to it own forecasts!

The stubbornly tight monetary stance of the Polish, the Czech and the Swedish central banks over the past couple of years have pushed these countries into a basically deflationary situation. That mean that these central banks now have to ease more than would have been the case had they not preoccupied themselves with property prices, the need for structural reforms and fiscal policy in recent years. However, as interest rates have been cut in all three countries – but too late and too little – we are now inching closer and closer to the Zero Lower Bound on interest rates.

In fact the Czech central bank has been there for some time and the Polish and the Swedish central bank might be there much earlier than policy makers presently realise. If we just get one “normal size” negative shock to the European economy and then the Polish and Swedish will have eventually to cut rates to zero. In fact with Sweden already in deflation one could argue that the Riksbank already should have cut rates to zero.

The Swedish and the Polish central banks are not unique in this sense. Most central banks in the developed world are very close to the ZLB or will get there if we get another negative shock to the global economy. However, most of them seem to be completely unprepared for this. Yes, the Federal Reserve now have a fairly well-defined framework for conducting monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound, but it is still very imperfect. Bank of Japan is probably closer to having a operational framework at the ZLB. For the rest of the central banks you would have to say that they seem clueless about monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound. In fact many central bankers seem to think that you cannot ease monetary policy more when you hit the ZLB. We of course know that is not the case, but few central bankers seem to be able to answer how to conduct monetary policy in a zero interest rate environment.

It is mysteries how central banks in apparently civilised and developed countries after five years of crisis have still not figured out how to combat deflation with interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound. It is a mental liquidity trap and it is telling of the serious institutional dysfunctionalities that dominate global central banking that central bankers are so badly prepared for dealing with the present situation.

But it is nonetheless a fact and it is hard not to think that we could be heading for decades of deflation in Europe if something revolutionary does not happen to the way monetary policy is conducted in Europe – not only by the ECB, but also by other central banks in Europe. In that sense the track record of the Swedish Riksbank or the Polish and Czech central banks is not much better than that of the ECB.

We can avoid deflation – it is easy!

Luckily there is a way out of deflation even when interest rates are stuck at zero. Anybody reading the Market Monetarists blogs know this and luckily some central bankers know it as well. BoJ chief Kuroda obviously knows what it takes to take Japan out of deflation and he is working on it. As do Czech central bank chief Miroslav Singer who last week – finally  – moved to use the exchange rate as policy instrument and devalued the Czech kurona by introducing a floor on EUR/CZK of 27. By doing this he copied the actions of the Swiss central bank. So there is hope.

Some central bankers do understand that there might be an Zero Lower Bound, but there is no liquidity trap. You can always avoid deflation. It is insanely easy, but mentally it seems to be a big challenge for central bankers in most countries in the world.

I am pretty optimistic that the Fed’s actions over the past year is taking the US economy out of the crisis. I am optimistic that the Bank of Japan will win the fight against deflation. I am totally convinced that the Swiss central bank is doing the right thing and I am hopeful that Miroslav Singer in the Czech Republic is winning the battle to take the Czech economy out of the deflationary trap. And I am even optimistic that the recent global positive supply shock will help lift global growth.

However, the ECB is still caught in its own calvinist logic and seems unable to realise what needs to be done to avoid a repeat of the past failures of the Bank of Japan. The Swedish central bank remains preoccupied with macro prudential stuff and imaginary fears of a property market bubble, while the Swedish economy now caught is in a deflationary state. The Polish central bank continues to forecast that it will fail to meet its own inflation target, while we are inching closer and closer to deflation. I could mention a number of other central banks in the world which seem trapped in the same kind of failed policies.

Ben Bernanke once argued that the Bank of Japan should show Rooseveltian resolve to bring Japan out of the deflationary trap. Unfortunately very few central bankers in the world today are willing to show any resolve at all despite the fact that we at least Europe is sinking deeper and deeper into a deflationary trap.


Update: Former Riksbank deputy governor Lars E. O. Svensson comments on the Swedish deflation. See here.

Abe should repeat Roosevelt’s successes, but not his mistakes

There is more good news from Japan today as new data shows that core inflation rose to 0.8% y/y in August and I think it is now pretty clear that the Bank of Japan is succeeding in defeating 15 years’ of deflation. Good job Mr. Kuroda!

BoJ chief Kuroda has done exactly done what Ben Bernanke called for back in 1999:

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1932 with the mandate to get the country out of the Depression. In the end, the most effective actions he took were the same that Japan needs to take—- namely, rehabilitation of the banking system and devaluation of the currency to promote monetary easing. But Roosevelt’s specific policy actions were, I think, less important than his willingness to be aggressive and to experiment—-in short, to do whatever was necessary to get the country moving again. Many of his policies did not work as intended, but in the end FDR deserves great credit for having the courage to abandon failed paradigms and to do what needed to be done. Japan is not in a Great Depression by any means, but its economy has operated below potential for nearly a decade. Nor is it by any means clear that recovery is imminent. Policy options exist that could greatly reduce these losses. Why isn’t more happening?

To this outsider, at least, Japanese monetary policy seems paralyzed, with a paralysis that is largely self-induced. Most striking is the apparent unwillingness of the monetary authorities to experiment, to try anything that isn’t absolutely guaranteed to work. Perhaps it’s time for some Rooseveltian resolve in Japan.

So far so good and there is no doubt that governor Kuroda has exactly shown Rooseveltian resolve. However, while Roosevelt undoubtedly was right pushing for monetary easing to end deflation in 1932 he also made the crucial mistake of trying to increase wages.

One can say that Roosevelt succeed on the demand side of the economy, but failed miserably on the supply side of the economy. First, Roosevelt push through the catastrophic National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) with effectively was an attempt to create a cartel-like labour market structure in the US. After having done a lot of damage NIRA was ruled unconstitutional by the US supreme court in 1935. That helped the US recovery to get underway again, but the Roosevelt administration continued to push for increasing labour unions’ powers – for example with the Wagner Act from 1935.

While it is commonly accepted that US monetary policy was prematurely tightened in 1937 and that sent the US economy into the recession in the depression in 1937 it less well-recognized that the Roosevelt administration’s militant efforts to increase the unions’ powers led to a sharp increase in labour market conflicts in 1936-37. That in my view was nearly as important for the downturn i the US economy in 1937 as the premature monetary tightening.

Prime Minister Abe is repeating Roosevelt’s mistakes   

The “logic” behind Roosevelt’s push for higher was that if inflation was increased then that would reduce real wages, which would cut consumption growth. This is obviously the most naive form of krypto-keynesianism, but it was unfortunately a widespread view within the Roosevelt administration, which led Roosevelt to push for policies, which seriously prolonged the Great Depression in the US.

It unfortunately looks like Prime Minister Abe in Japan is now pushing for exactly the same failed wage policies as Roosevelt did during the Great Depression. That could seriously undermine the success of Abenomics.

This is from Bloomberg today:

“Abe last week began meetings with business and trade union leaders to press his case for wage increases, key to the success of his effort to spur growth under his economic policies dubbed Abenomics.”

This is exactly what Roosevelt tried to do – and unfortunately succeed doing. His policies was a massive negative supply shock to the US economy, which pushed wages up relatively what would have happened with out policies such as NIRA. The result was to prolong the depression and I am fearful that if Prime Minister Abe will be as successful in pushing for higher wage growth in Japan it will undermine the positive effective of Mr. Kuroda’s monetary easing – inflation will rise, but economic growth will stagnate.

What Prime Minister Abe is trying to do can be illustrated in a simple AS-AD framework.

Abe wage shock

Mr. Kuroda’s monetary easing is clearly increasing aggregate demand in the Japanese economy pushing the AD curve to the right (from A to B). The result is higher inflation and higher real GDP growth. This is what we are now clearly seeing.

However, Prime Minister Abe’s attempt of increasing wages can only be seen as negative supply shock, which if successful will push the AS curve to the left (from B to C). There is no doubt that the join efforts of Mr. Kuroda and Mr. Abe are pushing up inflation. However, the net result on real GDP growth and employment is uncertain.

I am hopeful that Mr. Abe is not really serious about pushing up wages – other than what is the natural and desirable consequence of higher demand growth – and I hope that he will instead push much harder to implement his “third arrow”, which of course is structural reforms.

Said, in another way Mr. Abe should try to push the AS curve to the right instead of to the left – then Abenomics will not repeat the failures of the New Deal.

This is why we need an NGDP futures market

Until recently the global financial markets were on an one-way trip to recovery. Basically since the Federal Reserve in September implicitly announced the Bernanke-Evans rule investors have been betting on an US economic recovery – higher real and nominal GDP growth – and the Bank of Japan’s decisive actions to implement a 2% inflation target also have helped the sentiment. However, the picture has become a lot more confusing in recent weeks as turmoil has returned to the global financial markets.

The key problem is that we do not exactly know why there has been a sharp spike in market volatility. There is a number of competing theories. The most popular theory is that this is all Ben Bernanke’s fault as he has announced the “tapering” of quantitative easing – that according to the critiques has caused markets to price in tighter monetary conditions in the future and that is the reason why bond yields are rising while inflation expectations and stock markets are declining. A competing theory is that the real reason for this is not really Bernanke, but rather monetary tightening in China, which is forcing Chinese investors to liquidate investments – including in US Treasuries. I have a lot of sympathy for the later theory even though I think it is also right that Bernanke’s comments over the past months have been having an negative impact.

So why is it important what is the cause of these market moves? It’s it enough to note that all indications are that we globally are now seeing a contraction in aggregate demand and central banks should respond to that by easing monetary conditions? Yes and no. Yes because it is clear that monetary conditions are indeed getting tighter everywhere. However, no because that was not necessarily clear until last week.

Low inflation expectations is necessarily not a monetary easing

Interestingly enough it seems like everybody have become Market Monetarists recently in the sense that they think that it is the fed that is driving the markets via (bad) communication and the commentators are exactly looking at market indicators monetary conditions – for example market expectations for inflation.

And it is of course the sharp drop in inflation expectations, which is causing a lot of concern and I obviously agree that central banks should keep an very close eye on inflation expectations as an indicator for monetary conditions. HOWEVER, we should never forget that inflation expectations could drop either because of tighter monetary conditions or because of a positive supply shock.

Market Monetarists of course argue that central banks should not respond to supply shocks – positive or negative – and I would in fact argue that the drop in inflation expectations we have seen recently in the US (and other places) is to a large extent driven by a positive supply shock. That is good news for  real GDP growth. That is consistent with higher real bond yields and it not necessarily a problem (David Beckworth has been making that argument here). Hence, if the drop in inflation expectations had instead been primarily caused by tighter US monetary conditions then we should have expected to see the US stock markets plummet and the dollar should have strengthened.

That is of course what we have seen over the past week or so, but not in the month leading up to that. In that period the dollar was actually weakening moderately and the US stock market was holding up fairly well. That to me is an indication that the drop in inflation expectations have not only been about tighter US monetary condition.

Instead I think that we have seen a serious tightening of Chinese monetary condition and that has caused global commodity prices to drop. That is of course a negative demand shock in China, but it is a positive supply shock to the US economy. If that ONLY had been the case then it would be hard to the argument from a Market Monetarist perspective that the Federal Reserve should move to ease monetary conditions further. See my arguments from mid-May against monetary easing in responds to positive supply shocks here.

Avoid the confusion – set up an NGDP futures market

Sometimes it is pretty easy to “read” the markets to get an understanding of what is going on – it is for example pretty clear right now that Chinese monetary conditions are getting a lot tighter, but it is harder to say how much tighter US monetary conditions really have gotten over the past month or so and the bond market is certainly not a good indicator on its own (liquidity/flow effects vs expectational effects).

Hence, what should be the appropriate US monetary response? There is a significant difference between the appropriate respond to what is primarily a supply shock and what is primarily a demand shock. And it is of course not only me who is slightly confused about what is going on in the markets. Policy makers are likely to be at least as confused (likely a lot more…).

The best way to avoid any confusion is of course to set-up a market for exactly what the central bank is targeting. Hence, for an inflation targeting central bank there is of course inflation-linked bonds. However, that is not really a good guide for monetary policy if you want to avoid responding to supply shocks. Instead what we really need is NGDP-linked bonds. In the case of the US the US Treasury therefore should issue such bonds.

Had we had an US NGDP-linked bond now it would be very easy to see whether or not the markets where indeed pricing in tighter US monetary conditions and whether or not this should be a cause for concern. Furthermore, that would get us away from the constant discussion about whether higher bond yields is an indication of tighter or easier monetary conditions (it can in fact be both).

And finally if the there was an US NGDP-linked government bond then the fed could leave the time of “tapering” complete to the markets (See more on that here).

HT Cthorm


PS Scott Sumner and Evan Soltas have similar discussions

Leave it to the market to decide on “tapering”

The rally in the global stock markets has clearly run into trouble in the last couple of weeks. Particularly the Nikkei has taken a beating, but also the US stock market has been under some pressure.

If one follows the financial media on a daily basis it is very clear that there is basically only one reason being mentioned for the decline in global stock markets – the possible scaling back of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing.

This is three example from the past 24 hours. First CNBC:

“Stocks posted sharp declines across the board Wednesday, with the Dow ending below 15,000, following weakness in overseas markets and amid concerns over when the Fed will start tapering its bond-buying program on the heels of several mixed economic reports.”

And this is from Bloomberg:

“U.S. stocks fell, sending the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index to a one-month low, as jobs and factory data missed estimates and investors speculated whether the Federal Reserve will taper bond purchases.”

And finally Barron’s:

“Fear that the central bank may start scaling back its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases has helped trigger a sharp increase in market volatility over the last couple of weeks both here and overseas.”

I believe that what we are seeing in the financial markets right now is telling us a lot about how the monetary transmission mechanism works. Market Monetarists say that money matters and markets matter. The point is that the markets are telling us a lot about the expectations for future monetary policy. This is of course also why Scott Sumner likes to say that monetary policy works with long and variable LEADS.

Hence, what we are seeing now is that US monetary conditions are being tightened even before the fed has scaled back asset purchases. What is at work is the Chuck Norris effect. It is the threat of “tapering” that causes US stock markets to decline. Said in another way Ben Bernanke has over the past two weeks effectively tightened monetary conditions. I am not sure that that was Bernanke’s intension, but that has nonetheless been the consequence of his (badly timed) communication.

This is also telling us that Market Monetarists are right when we say that both interest rates and money supply data are unreliable indicators of monetary conditions – at least when they are used on their own. Market indicators are much better indicators of monetary conditions.

Hence, when the US stock market drops, the dollar strengthens and implied market expectations of inflation decline it is a very clear signal that US monetary conditions are becoming tighter. And this is of course exactly what have happened over the last couple of weeks – ever since Bernanke started to talk about “tapering”. The Bernanke triggered the tightening, but the markets are implementing the tigthening.

Leave it to the market to decide when the we should have “tapering”

I think it is pretty fair to say that Market Monetarists are not happy about what we are seeing playing out at the moment in the US markets or the global markets for that matter. The reason is that we are now effectively getting monetary tightening. This is certainly premature monetary tightening – unemployment is still significantly above the fed’s unofficial 6.5% “target”, inflation is well-below the fed’s other unofficial target – 2% inflation – and NGDP growth and the level NGDP is massively below where we would like to see it.

It is therefore hardly the market’s perception of where the economy is relative to the fed’s targets that now leads markets to price in monetary tightening, but rather it is Bernanke’s message of possible “tapering” of assets purchases, which has caused the market reaction.

This I believe this very well illustrates three problems with the way the fed conducts monetary policy.

First of all, there is considerable uncertainty about what the fed is actually trying to target. We have an general idea that the fed probably in some form is following an Evans rule – wanting to continue to expand the money base at a given speed as long as US unemployment is above 6.5% and PCE core inflation is below 3%. But we are certainly not sure about that as the fed has never directly formulated its target.

Second, it is clear that the fed has a clear instrument preference – the fed is uncomfortable with conducting monetary policy by changing the growth rate of the money base and would prefer to return to a world where the primary monetary policy instrument is the fed funds target rate. This means that the fed is tempted to start “tapering” even before we are certain that the fed will succeed in hitting its target(s). Said, in another way the monetary policy instrument is both on the left hand and the right hand side of the fed’s reaction function. By the way this is exactly what Brad DeLong has suggested is the case. Brad at the same time argues that that means that the fiscal multiplier is positive. See my discussion of that here.

Third the fed’s policy remains extremely discretionary rather than being rule based. Hence, Bernanke’s sudden talk of “tapering” was a major surprise to the financial markets. This would not have been the case had the fed formulated a clear nominal target and explained its “reaction function” to markets.

Market Montarists of course has the solution to these problems. First of all the fed should clearly formulate a clear nominal target. We obviously would prefer an NGDP level target, but nearly any nominal target – inflation targeting, price level targeting or NGDP growth targeting – would be preferable to the present “target uncertainty”.

Second, the fed should leave it to the market to decide on when monetary policy should be tightened (or eased) and leave it to the market to actually implement monetary policy. In the “perfect world” the fed would target a given price for an NGDP-linked bond so the implied market expectation for future NGDP was in line with the targeted level of NGDP.

Less can, however, do it – the fed could simply leave forecasting to either the markets (policy futures and other forms of prediction markets) or it could conduct surveys of professional forecasters and make it clear that it will target these forecasts. This is Lars E. O. Svensson’s suggestion for “targeting the forecast” (with a Market Monetarist twist).

Concluding, the heightened volatility we have seen in the US stocks markets over the last two weeks is mostly the result of monetary policy failure – a failure to formulate a clear target, a failure to be clear on the policy instrument and a failure of making it clear how to implement monetary policy.

Bernanke don’t have to order the printing of more money. We don’t need more or less QE. What is needed is that Bernanke finally tells us what he is really targeting and then he should leave it to the market to implement monetary policy to hit that target.

PS I could have addressed this post to Bank of Japan and governor Kuroda as well. Kuroda is struggling with similar troubles as Bernanke. But he could start out by reading these two posts: “Mr. Kuroda please ‘peg’ inflation expectations to 2% now” and “A few words that would help Kuroda hit his target”. Kuroda should also take a look at what Marcus Nunes has to say.

Chuck Norris beats Wolfgang Schäuble

So far it is has been a remarkable week in the global financial markets. The ’deposit grab’ in Cyprus undoubtedly has shocked international investors and confidence in the ability of euro zone policy makers has dropped to an all-time low.

Despite of the ‘Cyprus shock’ global stock markets continue to climb higher – yes, yes we have seen a little more volatility, but the overall picture is that of a continued global stock market rally. That is surely remarkable when one takes into account the scale of the policy blunder committed by the EU in Cyprus and the likely long-lasting damage done to the confidence in EU policy makers.

I therefore think it is fair to conclude that so far Chuck Norris has beaten German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Or said, in another way the Chuck Norris effect has been at work all week and that has clearly been a key reason why we have not (yet?) seen global-wide or even European-wide contagion from the disaster in Cyprus.

Just to remind my readers – the Chuck Norris effect of course is the effect that monetary policy not only works through expanding the money base, but also through guiding expectations.

When I early this week expressed my worries (or rather mostly my anger) over the EU’s handling of the situation in Cyprus a fixed income trader who is a colleague of mine comforted me by saying “Lars, you have now for half a year been saying that the Fed and the Bank of Japan are more or less doing the right thing so shouldn’t we expect the Fed and BoJ to offset any shock from the euro zone?” (I am paraphrasing a little – after all we were talking on a trading floor)

The message from the trader was clear. Yes, the EU is making a mess of things, but with the Bernanke-Evans rule in place and the Bank of Japan’s newfound commitment to a 2% inflation target we should expect that any shock from the euro zone to the US and Japanese economies would be ‘offset’ by the Fed and the BoJ by stepping up quantitative easing.

The logic is basically is that if an European shock pushes up US unemployment up we should expect the Fed to do even more QE and if that same shock leads to a strengthening of the yen (that mostly happens when global risk aversion increases) then the BoJ would also do more QE to try to meet its 2% inflation target. Said in another way any increase in demand for US dollar and yen is likely to be met by an increase in the supply of dollars and yen. In that sense the money base is ‘elastic’ in a similar sense as it would be under NGDP targeting. It is less perfect, but it nonetheless seems to be working – at least for now.

The fact that markets now expect the supply of dollars and yens to be at least quasi-elastic in itself means that the markets are not starting to hoard dollars and yen despite the ‘Cyprus shock’. This is the Chuck Norris effect at work – the central banks doesn’t have to do anything else that to reaffirm their commitment to their targets. This is exactly what the Federal Reserve did yesterday and what the new governor of Bank of Japan Kuroda is expected to do later today at his first press conference.

So there is no doubt – Chuck Norris won the first round against Wolfgang Schäuble and other EU policy makers. Thank god for that.


The graph Bernanke should look at before ‘exiting’ anything

Here is the Federal Reserve’s mandate:

“The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Open Market Committee shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.”

I don’t think it is the greatest mandate in the world, but it is the Fed’s mandate nonetheless.

I tried to estimate a simple reaction function for the fed based on “employment” (rate, Civilian Employment-Population ratio) and “prices” (PCE core inflation).  The estimation period is 1990 to 2007. 2008-13 is forecast.

Mankiw rule

Take a look at the forecast. The model is “forecasting” that the Fed funds target rate should be -7%!

I will leave it to my readers to judge whether the fed should ‘exit’ its quantitative easing programmes or not.

Bernanke knows why ‘currency war’ is good news – US lawmakers don’t

I stole this from Scott Sumner:

Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) asks whether all the major central banks easing might diminish the benefits and lead to trade protectionism.

“We don’t view monetary policy aimed at domestic goals a currency war,” [Bernanke] says. Easing policy can be “mutually beneficial” to other countries such as China, which depends on domestic demand in the U.S.

It’s a “positive-sum game, not a zero-sum game,” Bernanke says.

I don’t think Bernanke is reading this blog, but I feel like quoting myself:

Monetary easing is not a negative or a zero sum game. In a quasi-deflationary world monetary easing is a positive sum game.

I have not always been impressed with Bernanke and he has certainly made his fair share of mistakes, but he certainly is more knowledgable about monetary policy than Republican lawmakers.



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